Know Thy Heritage – A Christmas Investigation

With the season upon us where the weather is colder, the nights are longer, and the tribal call of the Daily Mail reader turns to all things British Christmas, it’s time for a festive blog. There are a number of videos doing the rounds explaining why people voted to pull Britain out of the EU – these are invariably incoherent rants about brown people. Case in point below:

Of course, this time of year the ‘keep Britain British’ rantings turn to all things seasonal. “Keep our nativity plays!”, “It’s Happy Christmas, not Holidays!”, and my favorite “We’re not even allowed to say Christmas’.* So it got me thinking, with ever declining attendance at actual Church services, what are these extra-British people celebrating?

*You are. Stop being ridiculous.

Now for Christians the world over, traditions are different. For instance, Coptic Christians celebrate Christmas in January (the original date before the Romans changed it to be nearer the Winter Solstice), and Advent traditionally is a time of preparation for the four weeks prior to the big festival. Preparations in this case meaning self reflection, fasting, and prayer that the second coming of Christ will heal the violence and evil in world.

Now, this doesn’t sound much like the ‘British Christmas’ being mourned for. So let’s have a look at some of the things that we actually do in the festive season and their roots.

So December 25th… not actually the wine making dude’s birthday. It’s certainly close, but was moved to be closer to the winter Solstice celebrated by Pagans across Europe (including Britain). The Solstice falls on the shortest day of the year, usually around 21st December and is part of the Yule Festival which lasts for 12 days. Now, that sounds familiar! 12 days? On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me… a Solstice because that’s actually where the meaning of the 12 days comes from – Pagans celebrate family and the return of the sun from the Solstice until the new year.

That decorated Christmas tree has to be British, right? Christmas trees have their roots in many places (ba boom tsss), but the idea of bringing in an evergreen tree hails back to imagesCeltic Pagan traditions. Bringing in an evergreen was thought to bring in the spirits that lived in the tree into the warmth. Each night, the family would hand sweet foods on the tree as an offering to the ‘little people’. The Christmas tree as we know it was a German tradition, instead a variety of evergreens were used in Britain – Evergreen trees represent everlasting life and were a powerful message back then that the winter would not last forever and life would return.

Mistletoe_Berries_UkEver had a quick kiss under the mistletoe? This was an evergreen particularly revered by Driuids who went to great lengths to collect it. The reason for kissing beneath it? The unusual white berries represent the fertile semen of the life giving man which combined with the evergreen was a powerful fertility symbol.

And that wreath you’ve hung on your door: yep, you guessed it, has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever. Again, the evergreen theme comes back here, but this time its about protection from evil spirits. Holly was thought to deter them with its spiky leaves and because Holy symbolizes the feminine with its red berried representing women’s blood,this also means protection.  When combined in a wreath, holly & mistletoe represent fertile marriage and the rebirth of the sun. With the wreath being circular, this also symbolizes the circle of life.

But what about the lights? There’s nothing more British than decking your house with enough lights to signal to the international space station.The-Brailsford-familys-Christmas-lights-display-in-Okebourne-Road-Brentry

But with the Pagans and Druids celebrating the return of the sun, Yule is a festival of fire & light. It is quite literally celebrating the return of the light. Candles were lit, oranges /apples were sliced, died, and hung in the house to represent the sun and a 5 pointed star was placed in a prominent position. For Jewish celebrations, this would represent the Star of David – in Pagan celebrations, the star represents the five elements. There are only so many symbols!

ah, but you wouldn’t get presents if it wasn’t for a proper British Christmas. This is very true – if you were celebrating the Christian holiday, then gift giving doesn’t feature. However, the tradition of gift giving and acts of kindness throughout the season are cast in the footsteps of our ancestors. This is the season where we celebrate new life and family and the tradition of gift giving was established long before the Romans rocked up.

So should we protect our traditional British Christmas? Of course. Anything which lightens the dark winter nights and lifts us up should be encouraged. To borrow from the Bard, Eat, drink, and be merry. But know where you traditions come from – be proud of your heritage, but know where it hails from. Britain did not start with the Victorian Empire – that is a dark time for our humanity (one of a number), but from a combination of different nations coming together and evolving as a whole. Sound familiar?

And to you my dear reader, I wish you a [Blessed Yule | Happy Christmas | Enjoyable Holiday | Happy Hanukkah | Excellent time off following Eid ] *delete as appropriate